By Tommy Hough
If you've been following the news in the wake of this weekend's one-two punch of magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes near Ridgecrest and Searles Valley, you've likely seen Dr. Lucy Jones with her U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) colleagues on television talking about the impact of the two quakes, the vigorous sequence of aftershocks, and what to expect moving forward as Southern California ends its two decade earthquake drought.
I first met Dr. Jones at the inaugural Great California Shakeout press event at the California Institute of Technology in June 2008, and had a chance to speak with her at length in Dec. 2014, when I was recording interviews for a Public News Service story I was doing on Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's sweeping new retrofit plan for the city.
At the time I was only able to use bite-sized "actualities" as story quotes, and while I had plenty of material to choose from, being something of an earthquake student I remember thinking it was a shame I wasn't able to use more of my conversation with Dr. Jones for the story, or for a more long-form presentation similar to what I'd been doing a few years earlier with my Treehuggers International show.
After I submitted my story I moved on to my next assignment, but after this weekend's quakes I decided to go back and revisit my interview. I found several of the points Dr. Jones mentioned to be entirely relevant today, including concerns over the loss of affordable and workforce housing, being cut off from regional water sources, and the long-term economic impacts for Southern California.
Calif. State Route 178 aerial photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (public domain)
Dr. Lucy Jones photo by Tommy Hough
By Tommy Hough
Visiting a National Park shouldn't be seen as a political statement or an act of self-actualizing resistance. Ordinarily, I would never advocate for such a thing in relation to America's Best Idea, or as a means to symbolically push back against a corrupt and cruel regime – even one as vile as this administration.
But at this moment, our National Park Service (NPS) could use some love and attention. It could also use some respect – and you and I can demonstrate that respect.
Our National Parks and Wilderness areas are places where Americans can, should, and frequently do, come together without obsessing over what political stripe they identify with. Our outdoors have always been part of what binds us together as Americans, serving as a common symbol of pride and expression of humility at the foot of our nation's most remarkable landscapes.
As humans we are naturally imperfect, and therefore, we are an imperfect nation. But as a nation, we also have the capacity within our founding documents to improve upon ourselves, and rise above our egos to get things right. Jefferson called this the pursuit of "a more perfect union." Conservation policy is a marvelous expression of that ideal. The benefits to humankind and our planet in doing so are self-evident, and abundant.
But today we have a president who is a liar, a destructive fool, and a resentful braggart. He has never wanted for anything, but has never felt he had enough. He is an agent of abject and malicious cruelty, like a child who stomps on snails or tortures animals because there's no one to stop him, despite having the immense power of his office at his fingertips to be the world's greatest advocate of peace and kindness. This president is not an engaged caretaker of our special places, nor does he have any interest in being one.
It's astounding that, for a man so desperate to be loved, this president can be counted upon to make the most hateful, unpopular decision even worse by twisting his knife into groups he perceives as isolated, vulnerable, or powerless along the way. He will never make a decision that isn't utterly self-centered and based upon his most immediate need to dominate. Yet he sincerely wonders why no one likes him.
He makes absurd exaggerations and fabricates conversations, like a child, about what our mayor might have said about his border policies behind closed doors, or how many people attended his inauguration. Those who fall into his orbit are irreparably damaged, and will remain marked by their association with him for the rest of their days. That he is an insatiable, emotional black hole is transparently clear, yet so many, perhaps blinded by his alleged wealth or some other odd attraction, fail to see it.
Which brings us to today. The only way this president seems to feel he receives the respect he believes is due is by ordering the military and weapons of war to surround him like a Soviet politburo stooge. His rally saw a U.S. president break with 243 years of tradition, of resistance to indulging in empty, vain military braggadocio. Today, we have a president so emotionally insecure he can't even perceive the idea that to boast shows weakness and insecurity – two things no chief executive should ever reveal.
Whether a few tanks or a few jet flyovers, the United States – the strongest military power in the world, if that means anything – has no need to parade our might before the world in a wasteful, impotent show of force that utilizes the authoritarian May Day displays of North Korea or the Soviet Union as inspiration, even though the president argues he was inspired by Bastille Day. These displays are not, and have never been, who we are as Americans.
According to historian Michael Beschloss, who wrote a book about wartime presidents, President Eisenhower – the general who held the coalition of Western Allies together and led them to victory over Germany and Italy in World War II – had no problem reviewing military parades as a general, or reviewing formations as president when visiting military bases.
But when asked by his staff during the era of large Soviet military parades if he wanted to arrange something similar, Eisenhower said:
"To have a military parade without the end of a war or an inaugural or some big reason in Washington, D.C., that is out of our tradition."
According to Beschloss, Eisenhower also said:
"We are the preeminent power on Earth. For us, to try to imitate what the Soviets are doing in Red Square, would make us look weak."
Eisenhower also famously cut defense spending during his administration, something only a war-winning general could have done in the midst of the Cold War, and famously warned the nation about the military-industrial complex upon leaving office in January 1961.
But even shortly after taking office in 1953, as the Korean War was heading into its final, bloody months before a cease-fire, the 34th president said:
"The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."
Those days, of course, are very much over. Today our president insists on "rebuilding our Navy," without any awareness it is no longer 1945.
Today, what interests our president isn't doing the right thing or abiding by the rational tradition observed by individuals clearly more decent and wise than he. What interests this president is the only thing that has ever motivated him – more. The question is, who does he cheat, rob, or steal from to get more.
In the case of today's display on the National Mall, where Martin Luther King gave his celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, and where Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the segregated Washington, D.C., of 1939, the president spent millions in seven military flyovers, with 24 aircraft costing at least $560,000 per hour, along with a variety of "unknown costs" that the White House will probably never clarify. A Defense Department estimate for a proposed military parade last year came to $92 million, but the event was scuttled once the costs were made public.
While the "unknown costs" for the president's spectacle remain, what is known is the administration snatched $2.5 million in visitor fees from the National Park Service to fully fund the "Salute to America," even as park service officers were ordered to police the event.
An agency long-maligned by this administration, the park service relies upon visitor fees collected at NPS sites to cover the shortfall politicians of both parties fail to provide, year after year, for maintenance, visitor services, law enforcement, wildlife habitat and recreation access.
That this money is being "appropriated" from the NPS at a time when parks face a massive financial shortfall, including $12 billion in backlogged maintenance aggravated by the government shutdown earlier this year, and while the administration is actively undoing the sanctity of National Monuments even at a time of renewed interest in parks and an influx of visitors, is contemptible.
That today's self-congratulatory display is taking place at a time when children have been forcibly separated from their parents and kept in cages, devoid of the love and touch any child needs, and held in filthy, unsanitary concentration camps "housing" migrants legally seeking asylum, is similarly extraordinary and intolerable. This administration continues to undo the capability of our courts, our operating agencies, and remains dead set on pitting Americans against each other in order to enhance the president's power.
The rot that this administration has enabled, with the naked aid of a foreign power has, in two-and-a-half short years, radically altered the basic tenets of our republic and weakened our democracy to the breaking point.
So with the administration's theft of the park service budgetary supplement in mind, I would encourage you to make a trip this weekend to one of our nation's National Parks, and tell the rangers and employees and volunteers there thank you. Let them know you value them, and that you appreciate the unheralded work they do, day after day, maintaining and preserving our nation's natural and historical heritage. Say the same thing to U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) personnel too, and those who operate our state and regional parks.
Park professionals and volunteers work every day to not only give visitors an amazing experience, but to illustrate how our nation's legacies have affected the wild and the land. They preserve our resources, highlight moments when our nation has succeeded and faltered, and simply in being there stand as one of our nation's great success stories.
Granted, this isn't the kind of success a man like our president can comprehend or appreciate. The humility that goes into declaring a place, an ecosystem, a historic site, or a vast wilderness as off limits so as to enact preservation practices is an extraordinary feat of humanity, and one that is constantly set upon by the temptation of greed, prejudice, waste, and a desire among some to whitewash our nation's mistakes and heritage – to deny history – in order for it to conform to a curious perfection aligned with certain political desires.
When visiting a National Park Service locale, consider the options before you. Instead of fighting the crowds at Muir Woods National Monument on a holiday weekend, find solace, silence and an extraordinary outdoor experience to the north at Point Reyes National Seashore. Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to find parking among the campers and fifth wheels at Yosemite Valley, explore the basin and range geologic province and ancient bristlecones of Great Basin National Park. Savor the view from our Cabrillo National Monument, or revel in the majestic natural churches of the Redwoods.
Take a stand and resist by going out into our woodlands and wilderness and heed, as John Muir would say, the "good tidings" of the mountains. Visit our parks and special places, and embrace our collective natural and historic heritage that our president sees only as an ATM to fund embarrassing, self-aggrandizing spectacles that subvert our nation's earned patriotism.
Visit our National Parks, and protect what's yours from those who would privatize it or steal it away from you in the dead of night. This land is your land.
This guest column originally appeared on the Oregon Wild website. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.
By Steve Pedery
Back in 2010, when Congress was debating the Affordable Care Act, opponents of the legislation had a problem. The things that were actually in the bill – slowing the inflation of health care costs, providing more access to health care, and ensuring coverage for people with pre-existing conditions – were very popular with Americans. So the healthcare reform opponents attacked things that were never actually in the bill, like "death panels," and launched a massive media and P.R. campaign to pretend they were.
Those same corrupt, swamp-monster politics of Trump and Washington D.C. arrived in Oregon this session, most visibly in the death of HB 2020, the Clean Energy Jobs Act that was killed in the Oregon State Senate.
Most Oregonians want our state to act to address climate change. They want more investment in renewable energy and cleaner vehicles, and a transition to less pollution from industrial facilities. They also want Oregon's forests, rivers, and wildlife protected. Voters wanted these things badly enough that they voted for a Democratic "super majority" in the 2018 elections to achieve those aims.
Oregon Wild was not a major player in the debate over HB 2020. Our work focuses primarily on protecting and restoring public lands, forests, wildlife, and rivers. The campaigners behind HB 2020 made a strategic decision early on to exempt logging emissions from the bill. By doing this, they hoped to avoid the ire of "King Clearcut," i.e. the circle of logging barons, logging corporations, chemical industry lobbyists, and the Oregon Forest Industries Council (OFIC) that funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to Republican and Democratic politicians every year.
Getting on the wrong side of King Clearcut is viewed as the kiss of death in Salem politics, and by exempting logging emissions the bill's backers hoped to avoid being targeted by Oregon's powerful clearcut lobby.
But as the 2019 legislative session dragged on, this became increasingly difficult. First, some in the logging industry began demanding credit for the carbon being captured and stored by forests on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land recovering from the clearcutting epidemic of the 1980s and early 90s.
They also wanted credit for simply replanting forests on private lands they clearcut (which has been legally required in Oregon since the 1970s). Since the whole point of climate legislation is to improve things over the status quo, neither condition made any sense, particularly since King Clearcut refused to consider the giant carbon debt that occurs every time a forest is logged.
Others in the logging lobby tried to push fake science, claiming that forest fires were a bigger source of carbon than clearcutting (they are not); that 2 x 4s, construction materials, and paper products store more carbon that living forests (they don't); and that dense, 30-year-old industrial logging tree farm plantations store more carbon than 200+ year-old old-growth forest (they don't). The reality is that logging is Oregon's largest source of carbon emissions, dwarfing even wildfire, and that better logging practices like restoring old-growth, longer logging rotations, and fewer clearcuts is the biggest single step our state can take to address climate change.
To be fair, not all logging interests were pushing fake science and climate denial. Some quietly weighed in to support HB 2020, hoping to sell carbon credits to industrial polluters under the "cap and trade" program the bill would create. If landowners go to longer logging rotations, thinning instead of clearcutting, or agreements not to log at all, more carbon is stored. While this creates a potential offset for carbon emissions from industrial polluters, it doesn't do much to protect clean air or the health of residents living downwind from those facilities.
In the end, this didn't matter. As the session began to wind down, some of Oregon's wealthiest logging barons, led by Andrew Miller, funder of Bundy-believing politicians and a wide variety of right-wing causes, and Rob Freres, who Oregon Wild battled to protect Opal Creek from clearcutting in the 1990s, came out against the bill and began urging Republicans and anti-environmental Democrats to oppose it. In response, Sen. Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) added his -113 amendment, which specifically barred Oregon landowners from selling carbon credits instead of logging.
It wasn't enough. Miller and Freres, the clearcut kings, launched a major P.R. and media campaign saying the bill would regulate logging (it wouldn't), that it would drive up fuel prices for loggers, farmers and truckers (a companion bill actually gave them new fuel subsidies), and that it would ruin rural economies (when economic studies said it would do the opposite). They told these lies to the media, their employees, and to legislators, and launched their #TimberUnity log truck rally in Salem to promote them. They weaponized misinformation and told rural Oregonians to boycott businesses that support climate action.
That the entire campaign was based on lies didn't seem to matter. Employees of logging companies were encouraged to come to Salem, and company owners sent their log trucks and tractors.
Television news ran images of diesel log trucks rolling through Salem and angry speakers decrying HB 2020 as a ban on logging, while largely ignoring the presence of Three Percenter (believers in the violent "sovereign citizen" movement) and white nationalists in the crowd. Some media outlets responded to criticism of inaccurate stories with bland, stenographical-justification statements of "we are just covering what they are saying."
Just as in 2010, when a P.R. campaign firmly established the idea that "death panels" were actually a thing in the Affordable Care Act, the #TimberUnity rally firmly established the idea that HB 2020 had provisions in it that restricted logging. The pressure worked, and after three anti-environment Democrats made it known they were siding with Oregon's runaway Republicans against the bill and action on climate change, it died.
So what is Oregon to learn from this mess? For one, it is high time that elected officials and environmental campaigners all recognize that the clearcut kings of Oregon, i.e. right-wing donors like Freres and Miller, have no interest in solving environmental problems. Men who argued in favor of clearcutting the ancient forests of Opal Creek and who fund the campaigns of anti-public lands, anti-immigrant, anti-worker politicians are not going to stay neutral on climate legislation, or any other major progressive campaign in Oregon.
Second, Oregon is literally being flooded with corporate political money, and that money is corrupting our state's politics – particularly on the environment. As the Oregonian's Polluted by Money series documented, our state has some of the weakest campaign finance rules in the nation, and politicians have thus far been unable to produce a plan that would effectively combat the corrupting influence of money in our politics.
Per capita, Oregon ranks first in the nation when it comes to campaign contributions from corporations, and first in contributions from the logging industry – doubling even the money the logging industry spends in Washington and California. That money buys access, power, and favors, all of which were on display when Republican senators abandoned their jobs in order to block a vote on climate legislation, and when three anti-environment Democrats joined them. Oregon desperately needs campaign finance reform to rein in the nearly unlimited money currently coming from polluting corporations.
Finally, Oregon has to get serious about addressing our weakest-in-the-west logging rules on state and private lands. Logging barons have made millions clearcutting our forests, leaving Oregonians, rural and urban alike, to foot the bill from mudslides and polluted drinking water, degraded salmon runs, and an ongoing endangered species crisis.
They have also exposed rural families to cancer-causing chemicals, and blocked important legislation to protect health and safety. Worse, state regulators can't even say with certainty if most logging operations are even meeting our existing weak rules.
Everyone in Oregon uses wood products, but they don't have to come from clearcuts. All of us, urban and rural alike, want a clean, healthy environment. We all value old-growth forests, salmon runs, and clean water. We want meaningful action to address climate change. After the death of HB 2020, it is clearer than ever that we cannot have those things unless all of us work to stand up to Oregon's clearcut kings, and the lies and misinformation they spread.
Steve Pedery serves as conservation director at Oregon Wild, and is an avid fly fisherman.
Banner graphic and Clatsop County logging animation courtesy of Oregon Wild.
Steve Pedery and Hood River County timber country photos by Tommy Hough.
Three Percenters photo by Tim Dickerson.
Spraying editorial cartoon © 2015 Jesse Springer.
Remarks to administration officials written for the California Wilderness Coalition, which is joining a lawsuit against several of the proposed border wall extensions through San Diego County and our southern border.
By Tommy Hough
Being an outdoors fan, when I first arrived in San Diego in 2002 I set out to explore our region's coastal parklands, foothill open space areas, and the forests, meadows and hidden canyons that make up the "spine" of San Diego County in the local mountains of the Peninsular Ranges. This in addition to the magnificently preserved, carefully managed, and geologically extraordinary Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the eastern third of the county.
Only later, after living in San Diego for several years, did I become aware of a fascinating slice of wild, rugged desert mountains just east of the San Diego and Imperial county line along the border of the U.S. and Mexico, and managed for protection by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as the Jacumba Wilderness.
Included as part of the 1994 Desert Protection Act, the Jacumba Wilderness contains mountains that reach heights of 4,500 ft., and appear to be "sprinkled" from top to bottom with colossal, rounded boulders and rocky outcroppings that look nothing like the low-elevation Colorado Desert that expands from it to the north and east. While a separate geologic bloc, the mountains are similar to the northernmost reaches of the Sierra de Juárez range just a few miles to the south across the border with Mexico.
Portions of this geology can be seen up-close along Interstate 8 at Mountain Springs and the In-Ko-Pah Grade, as the freeway descends from the Peninsular Ranges into the Imperial Valley, with the eastbound and westbound lanes each taking individual canyons through the route.
Similarly, to the south in the northernmost portion of Baja California, the Rumorosa Highway winds along these mountains in a series of dramatic switchbacks. While the views are spectacular, it's difficult, and clearly dangerous, to get out and fully appreciate the area at speed on a steep freeway grade, whether in the heat of summer or during the not-infrequent snowstorms which can blanket the area in winter.
And that's one of the reasons I'm so concerned about the future of the Jacumba Wilderness, especially as new extensions of border wall are to be implemented along the area's international boundary with Mexico.
I was recently in Jacumba Hot Springs as a new segment of border wall was being added to the old, Clinton-era Operation Gatekeeper fence, topped with ominous and deadly concertina wire – something no nation should have along a friendly border. I was disturbed to see a stark line of border fence, now over twice as high, extending for approximately two miles to the east, over the western slope of the Jacumbas. This is absolutely not a place where wild processes should be impeded.
The border is, and always has been, an invisible line that means nothing to the winds and wildlife that have moved through these rugged, harsh canyons for millennia. Given the frequent furnace-like temperatures, the balance of life is so on edge and fragile in a place like the Jacumbas that even with the inherent protections that come with wilderness management, sealing off either side of the wildlands from each other will not only serve as a death sentence for dozens of species – but will lead to interbreeding and less diversity overall.
The Wilderness Act was specifically tailored and intended to avoid this very fate for natural processes and places where "man is only a visitor." Should these border walls go in and replace the fences of barbed wire now there, it will be in defiance of the spirit of the act.
On the Mexico side of the border the same natural processes that we find in the Jacumba Wilderness continue for a dozen miles in each direction – which is partially why the area was so suitable for wilderness designation in the first place.
There are areas of the southern border in Arizona where barriers have been installed that enable wildlife movement but impede, or at least discourage, off-road vehicle and ATV traffic to such an extent that the necessary slowdowns for someone crossing illegally to slalom through the barriers would no doubt catch the attention of Border Patrol. I would recommend these kinds of barriers be utilized in the Jacumba Wilderness instead of sealing off entire ecosystems in a wild area already known for fierce heat and brutally rugged terrain, completely devoid of water, and patently inhospitable to long-term exposure.
San Diego County is the most biologically diverse county in the lower 48 states, and it's because of our coastal, foothill, mountain and desert climates. Because of that location, the region is a key spot for birds along the Pacific Flyway, as birds migrate north and south along the western edge of North America.
The nearby Salton Sea, in particular, has proven to be a popular spot for a wide array of birds, but in a place like the Jacumba Wilderness one can see and hear this wildlife without crowds, without noise – without anything – except the natural processes which brought those birds there. A wall 30 feet, 40 feet, 50 feet high will undo much of the special sanctity of this wild country for birds and humans alike. It will become a cage.
One of the best indicators of a healthy, balanced ecosystem is the presence of large, "charismatic" predator species like mountain lions, which is something the Jacumba has, along with more plentiful bobcats, which are seen as seldom as their larger cousins. The giveaways of their presence are the tracks, which are plentiful when one knows what to look for. Building a wall along this boundary will trap animals on one side from the other, further reducing respective gene pools and weakening these critical natural actors. Within a few years, the entire wilderness could look very different with one of the top regional predators unable to have its "trickle down," for lack of a better term, effect on other species in the region.
And then there's the price to humans – and the peace of mind, solace, autonomy, opportunities for meditation and communing with nature that we so desperately need as a society and a people, that will be irreparably harmed as another long-term cost of these ugly walls. And so needless when other options are considered.
My friends and fellow outdoor advocates have our special routes, trails and campsites in these mountains, and we value the time we spend in a place as wild as any in the United States, where we can hike, explore, and marvel at the surprise call of the canyon wren, or the aromas cast aloft on the warm breezes in the afternoon. It is then we can truly reconnect with ourselves, our environment and our planet, and feel we are part of something far greater than our time – which was another consideration written into the wisdom of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Please consider some of that wisdom as you make these decisions, which seem to be so appallingly based on short-term political desires, instead of the natural bounty which it is your job to manage, and defend.
Photos by (top to bottom) Christopher Czaplicki, Tommy Hough and Francisco Valenzuela.
By Tommy Hough
We have an opportunity to remake, revitalize and ReWild Mission Bay into a world-class recreation destination, with cleaner water, greater access to the shoreline, more habitat for native plants and animals, and climate resiliency for the next 80 years so the bay and the park are in the strongest position possible to withstand the rising sea levels we know are coming.
These are already critical concerns our city must face, but at Mission Bay Park, we can also make the northeast corner of Mission Bay an ecological, recreational and educational showpiece, with a major collegiate facility potentially anchoring an interpretive or wetland study facility. I would love to see, at Mission Bay, something similar to what San Diego County has at San Elijo Lagoon, or similar to the Chula Vista Nature Center, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and California State Parks facilities at the Tijuana Slough.
These opportunities don't come along very often, but there is also an urgency attached to this.
When I mention I support the ReWild Mission Bay proposal, people often joke and say, "Well, climate change is going to ReWild Mission Bay anyway." And they're right.
So let's get it right. Let's make sure our shorelines are less hardened, and let's make sure we have the volume of wetlands we need in the northeast corner of Mission Bay to filter the water which will continue to flow into the bay from Rose Creek, and let's ensure that we have the wetland for habitat for endangered plants, birds and animals that rely on that tenuous space between the sea and land to survive.
Let's ensure that habitat is enhanced for those natural neighbors of ours who are reliant upon our good decisions, before the water meets asphalt and concrete, and it slips beneath the waterline forever.
And let's take advantage of this opportunity to clean the water in Mission Bay, especially in the northeast corner where it is the warmest, the most brackish, and has the least amount of tidal circulation.
With greater wetlands the water will be cleaner throughout Mission Bay. This is the kind of green infrastructure that works for us. If we can do that, expand recreation, protect our environment, and reconnect San Diegans to a special place that they may only know from driving by it at freeway speed, we will have enhanced our park into a civic showpiece on par with Balboa Park.
That, to my mind, is a great opportunity for San Diego, and a tremendous legacy.
By Tommy Hough
Great news as SB 307 has passed the California State Senate, 21-11, and is now on its way to the state Assembly.
Thanks to everyone who made calls, helped organize and got the word out, especially Cody Petterson, who organized this San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action Stop Cadiz demonstration at the state building that the video above is culled from.
Invaluable thanks as well to my friends and conservation colleagues David Lamfrom and Chris Clarke of the National Parks Conservation Association. Let's pass this in the Assembly and hold Cadiz and the Interior Department accountable to science.
For more about the ongoing camping to stop the Cadiz Project and the threat to the integrity and sanctity of Mojave Trails National Monument, have a look at my earlier blogpost titled An Opportunity to Stop the Cadiz Project in Its Tracks.
By Tommy Hough
Any fan of the outdoors in Southern California worth their salt knows the harsh landscape of the desert also has a soft side, whether it's the gentle, sandy slopes of the Cadiz Dunes, the coat of a wild desert kit fox, or the visual splendor and riot of color of the spring wildflower bloom.
Our deserts are some of our nation's last truly wild places and sources of needed elbow room. And with five new wilderness areas having been established by the recent public lands bill signed into law last month, more of our Southern California deserts are being managed for conservation than ever before.
Curiously, the desert has another resource some in Washington, and here in California, are eager to tap into and exploit: water.
An area called the Fenner Basin in the Mojave Desert is home to a massive, crescent-shaped underground aquifer that holds trillions of gallons of groundwater, and feeds at least five springs in the eastern Mojave that are critical for area wildlife and regional ecosystems. The age of the aquifer is also significant, with some estimates placing it at around 10,000 years old. Its presence ensures the region will never be entirely baked into oblivion by punishing summertime temperatures, or by our warming climate.
The northern end of the aquifer was first protected when Fenner Basin was drawn into the original boundaries of Mojave National Preserve, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton as part of the Desert Protection Act of 1994.
In 2016, after years of galvanizing public support for wilderness initiatives, desert advocates scored another victory for American conservation when President Obama established Mojave Trails National Monument along wild portions of old U.S. Route 66, incorporating the southern portion of the Fenner Basin aquifer.
Unfortunately, shortly after the arrival of the Trump administration, the Interior Department unveiled a plan to reduce the boundaries of over 20 National Monuments, mostly in the west. Mojave Trails was included on that chopping block, and while Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, both located in Utah, had their boundaries shrunk, at this point the same fate has not befallen Mojave Trails. Not yet.
The Trump administration's move to shrink National Monument boundaries is unprecedented, and in the case of Mojave Trails, it's clear the point is to facilitate the pumping of the Fenner Basin aquifer for commercial purposes. The only company interested in doing so is Cadiz, a Los Angeles-based conglomerate with significant ties to the Trump administration and Interior Secretary nominee David Bernhardt, whose lobbying firm has represented Cadiz on this matter in the past. Cadiz owns property within the National Monument and wants to tap into the aquifer beneath its inholding.
Cadiz claims its wells can pump at least 16 billion gallons of water each year from the aquifer for 50 years without harming any springs, wildlife or plants on the surface. The company claims the aquifer receives about two-thirds of the amount of water they plan to draw out annually from rain and snow, but the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service say no.
According to those agencies, the Cadiz project would pump up to 25 times more water than the aquifer receives each year, lowering the water table and drying up local springs – thus harming the desert wildlife that has relied on those springs for centuries. The Cadiz Project will aggravate desertification, and decimate a cross section of Mojave Desert wildlife and ecology as it tries to steal and sell groundwater from one of the driest places in the United States.
Curiously, in the Trump administration's haste in re-writing federal railroad right-of-way laws in order to facilitate the Cadiz plan, they missed the fact that any pipeline from the Cadiz inholding in Mojave Trails must cross state land. While the state lands commission has the final say on how a pipeline may be placed and utilized on land that belongs to California taxpayers, there have been recent moves in the legislature to head the problem off with bills that would have prevented Cadiz and the Trump administration from draining the aquifer.
Unfortunately, the bills were killed in committee in the State Senate, and the critical policy affecting the aquifer never implemented. So conservationists are once again going to bat, this time for SB 307, introduced by State Senator Richard Roth (D–Riverside). The bill would enable the protection of the Fenner Basin aquifer beneath Mojave Trails, and at last, put an end to the destructive Cadiz proposal. If passed by the State Senate, Assembly passage would be likely.
The bill is up for a vote in the California Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, after Cadiz asked for more time to formulate a response. SB 307 needs a resounding yes from the committee as the bill heads to the full State Senate. One of the votes SB 307 needs is Senator Ben Hueso, whose 40th Senate District includes much of southern San Diego County and Imperial County.
As a Californian, outdoorsman, and co-founder and first president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, I'd like to ask Sen. Hueso to consider the science, the proud conservation heritage of our state, the need to preserve our natural aquifers and water resources, and the need to resist the environmentally destructive Trump agenda – and vote yes on SB 307 in the Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
Photos by Michael Gordon and Tommy Hough.
By Tommy Hough
With Interstate 15 running through the middle of it, I knew my visit to Walker Canyon to see the superbloom wouldn't exactly be a wilderness experience. Like it or not, however, this is the year to go.
The bloom is like nothing you'll see outside the brief riot of color in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, or the vast wildflower blooms along the San Andreas Fault at Carrizo Plain National Monument in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley. The intensity and volume of this year's bloom in Walker Canyon also rivals anything I've seen at the similarly spectacular, and more predictable, Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve near Lancaster.
The problem is, Walker Canyon isn't designed to handle more than a few visitors at a time. And with a major Southern California freeway delivering motorists directly into the blooming hills that can be seen from 10 miles away as a red apparition floating along the horizon, the crush of tens of thousands of sightseers compelled to pull off at Lake Drive and get out, walk around, get in the way of other cars and take selfies is simply unavoidable.
Located just north of Lake Elsinore in the hills of the Temescal Mountains, Walker Canyon is managed by the Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District, and is a designated county wildlife conservation area. It isn't managed as a park, because it's not a park. It's open space that has been so denuded by wildfires over the last 20 years due to its proximity to the freeway, and further damaged by excessive off-road vehicle use, that its value as an aesthetic outdoor destination are somehwat lacking – except during rare superblooms. Almost every other day of the year the Temescal Mountains and Walker Canyon are, at worst, dismissed as the "ugly, brown hills north of Lake Elsinore" one drives through on the way to destinations in the Inland Empire.
Curiously, the canyon's persistent fires and off-road vehicle abuse, aided by the presence of a major freeway and a wind tunnel effect into the Temescal Valley, make for ideal poppy-seeding conditions. While this isn't an endorsement of unnecessary wildfire or destructive recreation, California poppies love to grow in burned and disturbed areas, often capitalizing on fresh layers of soil revealed from the scorching effect of wildfires. The wind from traffic and nature also do a excellent job of blowing poppy seeds into all corners of the canyon, part of the larger reason why California motorists often find bright "explosions" of poppies next to major roads and freeways during the spring.
My first wildflower stop that day was Railroad Canyon in the city of Lake Elsinore, but when I arrived at Walker Canyon just to the north I was amazed at the traffic. The first thing that crossed my mind was the chaos of the 1969 Woodstock festival, and the miles upon miles of traffic chaos and cars jammed into clumsy parallel parking slots along the length of a few narrow, rural roads. The second thought that crossed my mind was this is what it would look like at places like Yosemite or the Redwoods if we didn't have management for our parks and special places. We have designated places or conservation so we don't stomp our resources to death, even out of love and attention.
The other major "bloom" sites in our end of the state have greater resources available to them because, by and large, they're parks with a heritage of managing hordes of visitors before they stomp to death the wildlife or wildflowers they've come to see. Carrizo Plain National Monument is probably the most primitive of these locales, in part because the area is so massive and there are so few nearby services. Walker Canyon has the opposite problem: it has a major freeway going down the middle of it and is five minutes away from an In-n-Out Burger.
I was heartened to see that Riverside County had done what they could to rope off swaths of the area, so visitors were kept to the trails and dirt roads, and the wildflowers could be plainly seen but not crushed. Drawing from their lessons from the 2017 bloom, the county has essentially funnelled visitors to three trailheads along Walker Canyon Rd. The heaviest use I saw was at the trailhead at the Lake Street exit off I-15, but heading south the crowds thinned out to less-dangerous levels, and I wound up parking my car by the gate at the end of the road.
The county had also posted dozens of quickly-made signs asking visitors to "stay off the flowers," and had good signage noting closed trails. While visitors and sightseers have largely obeyed, it was clear a few thousand more people would make things much more difficult to manage. I commended a ranger for the work his small staff had been able to do, but on my hike back I began to see dozens of people on ridges and closer to the trailhead already taking liberties and wandering off into the flowers themselves, no doubt crushing some of the thousands of painted ladies, butterfly chrysalises, and flowers themselves.
The next day, the entire area was shut down due to the volume of humanity descending on it, when visitors overwhelmed the rope barriers and any semblance of order, crushing many of the bloom areas in the process. While that's a sad bit of news, the ranger I'd spoken with the day before told me they expect the bloom to continue for another few weeks, in part due to the extraordinary rain we've received this winter, additional rain that was expected, and warming temperatures.
Since my visit on the Ides of March I've seen even more impressive photos of Walker Canyon from the nearby Ortega Highway along the eastern edge of the Santa Ana Mountains, and as well as an aerial photo of taken by flight intructor David Werntz, who flies out of the El Monte Airport in the San Gabriel Valley. I've shared some of my Railroad Canyon and Walker Canyon photos as a slideshow below.
So while Anza-Borrego's bloom may be spectacularly short-lived and the Antelope Valley and Carrizo Plain certainly worthy of a lengthier investment of time from San Diego, Walker Canyon and the Riverside County backcountry may be blooming for the forseeable future. Step lightly.
All photos © 2019 Tommy Hough
By Tommy Hough
The sweeping public lands bill signed into law by President Trump on Tuesday is the kind of idiot-proof bill of decades past, when Democrats and Republicans worked across the aisle to score wins for their home states and districts, and passed sensible, popular policy the public was in favor of.
The passage of the Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 is a huge win for the environment, for wildlife, ecosystems, and American conservation – made possible by decades of work by thousands of tireless activists whose names may be never be known, but who worked year after year on local projects important to their communities. Given the anti-science, anti-environmental era we live in, this victory is a moment of sweet irony and an environmental milestone. It is worth savoring, and celebrating.
From 1954 to 1994, the practice of passing sensible, popular policy was largely the norm in Congress. There were stark exceptions, of course, but those four decades of responsible – progressive, even – effort has come to be seen as a kind of congressional Golden Age.
But since the nationalization of midterm elections by an activist GOP in 1994, enabled by the rise of right-wing media in the wake of President Reagan's clueless "let the market decide" abdication of the Fairness Doctrine on public airwaves in 1987, bipartisanship became a dirty word as a radicalized GOP sought to cement the conservative gains of the Reagan era into, as Karl Rove called it, a "permanent Republican majority."
In doing so, the GOP's flirtation with dog whistles and idiocracy led not only to the Trump administration, but the flight of reason and reality from one of the nation's two major political parties. In its careless wake, the GOP created an amped-up, anger-driven, straw man-fed, resentment-fueled "movement" that eschews science, evidence and responsible inquiry – and continues to cite snowballs in winter as proof our global Climate Crisis is a hoax.
Over the last 10 years, an evermore gerrymandered Congress became a place where Wilderness and National Park bills went to die, and where effective conservation policy of decades past like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and the Wilderness Act have not just come under attack, but are being rolled back as fast as possible by the Trump administration, whose job as the executive branch is to enforce those laws passed by that earlier, Golden Age of idealized congressional wisdom and compromise.
A decade ago, when Democrats last controlled Congress and the White House, President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. Despite that bill's uninspiring name, the legislation was a needed boost for conservation efforts in the wake of the Bush administration, and ultimately added two million acres of designated Wilderness nationwide – the gold standard of federal conservation protection – plus miles of newly-recognized National Wild and Scenic Rivers.
It was a big win, but environmentalists knew it would be the last decent public lands bill for some time. And like nails in a coffin, the Tea Party election of 2010 ensured it would be so. Since then, Wilderness and other public lands packages accumulated into a legislative backlog in Washington, as the GOP Congress dismissed conservation bills out of hand while looking for excuses to shut down the government.
Congress even allowed the popular and effective 1965 Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which utilizes offshore oil drilling revenue to fund everything from trail maintenance projects to grants for little leagues, to expire on its 50th anniversary in 2015. Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, then-chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, shamelessly referred to the LWCF as a slush fund.
But by the summer of 2018, things began to change as the congressional GOP could no longer ignore the rising tide of the Blue Wave – like water racing out to sea ahead of a tsunami. As word from panicked district offices reached Washington that the Blue Wave was real, Congressman Bishop, recognizing his state's love and enjoyment of the outdoors, made peace with his Tea Party roots and began work with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva to craft an agreement on the Land and Water Conservation Fund that would become the backbone upon which the 2019 public lands bill was built.
The election of a Democratic House in November provided the needed sea change, and began to loosen up the conservation front in the Senate. Since the new year, some GOP politicians have even dared to address the Climate Crisis, and Senate Democrats who ordinarily may have looked elsewhere for actionable policy took the lead on introducing new public lands legislation. With some gentle nudges from the conservation movement, the backlog of bills found new sponsors and bipartisan eagerness, and things began to move forward. The public lands bill passed the Senate on Feb. 13, and the House on Feb. 26. President Trump signed it on Tuesday.
Now, don't be fooled. The bad old days of shrinking National Monument boundaries and warping the mission of agencies like the Department of the Interior and the EPA into destructive tools benefiting polluters by the Trump administration are still with us. But the package of public lands bills signed by the president is so thorough and so far-reaching it not only preserves 400,000 acres of federal public land in California in National Park additions and new Wilderness areas, it permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That, in of itself, is epochal good news in this age of environmental rollbacks.
But for our environmental advocates who brought these initiatives and bills over the finish line, whose hours of sacrifice and time away from families made this possible – they will be back at it tomorrow. Because preservation doesn't end with one success. We must play defense on one hand and continue to preserve the bounty of Redwoods, Sequoias, wild beaches, canyons, mountaintops, glaciers and grassland passed on to us from previous generations. And there is so much yet to preserve in our nation and elsewhere for ourselves, for others, and those who will come after us.
The Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 is a worthy addition to America's conservation heritage. Now lace up your boots, grab a map, and explore our public lands.
Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 (Senate Bill 47)
What a prize this package is for conservation. In the Golden State alone, the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act expands Death Valley National Park by 35,292 acres, and Joshua Tree National Park by 4,543 acres. The seldom-visited but must-be-experienced Mojave National Preserve receives a comparatively smaller addition of 25 acres, while 87,999 acres (!) will be added to Death Valley National Park to be managed as Wilderness by the National Park Service.
As my friend David Lamfrom, California desert and national wildlife director with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), explained on my Treehuggers International show at the time of the rollout of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 2010, the preservation of our desert wilderness not only retains intact ecosystems, but ensures continuity of wildlife corridors and the "very best of what remains."
The act establishes five new Wilderness areas on BLM-managed public land, totaling 207,300 acres:
The act also expands five existing Wilderness areas on U.S. Forest Service and BLM-managed lands by a total of 81,011 acres, including the legendary high country of the San Bernardino Mountains in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, one of the original Wilderness areas established by the Wilderness Act of 1964:
Over 77 miles of newly-protected National Wild and Scenic Rivers are included in the newly-signed package, including Surprise Canyon Creek just west of Death Valley and Deep Creek in the high country of the San Bernardino Mountains:
In addition, the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act establishes the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area in the Owens Valley. A popular camping destination and frequent filming location for Hollywood westerns and car commercials at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada, the Alabama Hills are made up of strangely-shaped, windblown rock formations, and are plainly seen from U.S. 395 just west of Lone Pine and Independence in Inyo County. The area has been in need of greater ecological protection and recreation management for decades.
Also established is the long-awaited Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, which will most likely be located along the border of California and Nevada in the midst of desert tortoise habitat. The center will provide care to the long-living but threatened species, especially tortoises rescued or collected from development or renewable energy sites on federal land. The center will also support rehabilitation efforts and continued research on the tortoises' tragic condition of inheriting a virus during human contact that prevents them from safely returning to the wild.
Here in San Diego County, the bill transfers 934 acres of BLM-managed land to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, already the largest state park in California, to be managed as Wilderness under state guidelines.
Not only is the sanctity of wildlife corridors between large conservation areas like Wilderness or National Parks ensured with the passage of this public lands bill, but it also requires the BLM to assess the impacts of habitat fragmentation, and establish policies and procedures to ensure the preservation of wildlife corridors within two years.
It Doesn't End Here
Despite signing the Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 into law, the 45th president is, of course, no friend of the environment. From undoing National Monuments to ending required fuel efficiency standards for cars to enabling polluters to dump poison and toxins into America's rivers and waterways, the Trump administration has a great deal to answer for in this life, and the next. The damage and utter subversion Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt let loose upon their respective agencies at the Interior Department and EPA at the behest of polluters and the resource extraction industry should be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted by Congress.
And as if to provide a reminder his administration is the most virulently anti-conservation, anti-environmental in U.S. history, and as if to remind Americans that he cannot bear to sign desired and effective policy into law that literally brought together a historically divided Congress without some kind of pointlessly self-serving last word, Trump announced during the signing ceremony he had removed nearly all the money from the Natural Resources Management Act's most popular component – the restoration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Of course, Congress has the last say on that. So let your elected officials know the LWCF needs to be funded and utilized now.
Mojave National Preserve photo by Tommy Hough
Amargosa River photo by Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Kit fox and Soda Mountains Wilderness photo by David Lamfrom / National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA)
By Tommy Hough
Throughout my campaign for San Diego City Council in 2017 and 2018, the issue I spent the most time on and repeated over and over to every audience I spoke before was the issue of our crumbling roads and infrastructure.
As my team and I went door to door throughout District 6 in Mira Mesa, Clairemont, Rancho Peñasquitos, Kearny Mesa and Sorrento Valley, we emphasized the need for San Diego to invest in our communities and aggressively rebuild and maintain our roads to serve us for the next 60 years, and to prepare for a wet winter like the one we're experiencing.
Granted, San Diego isn't Boston or Chicago. But because our weather is much more benign and temperate, we as a city have often fallen into the trap of not maintaining our infrastructure as aggressively as other cities that actually experience severe weather. However, our roads are as susceptible to drainage issues and poor construction as any other, and we're now seeing the result of the short-term planning and lack of political will to meaningfully maintain our roads.
Cynical political operators may point to my concerns as shooting fish in a barrel, but this has long been an issue for residents. And nowhere is this emergency more acute than on the east end of Gold Coast Drive, the road that prompted me to run for office in the first place. Mayor Faulconer and Councilmember Cate should declare this road an emergency, and move heaven and earth to fix it immediately, before more damage is done to the cars of residents and commuters who use this critical arterial every day.
I'm aware plans are underway to rebuild Gold Coast Drive between Camino Ruiz and Black Mountain Road, in part due to my city council campaign making this long-neglected and potholed road an issue last year. One of my criticisms of Mr. Cate is that he has been in office since the end of 2014 and was certainly aware of the terrible state of Gold Coast, Parkdale, Port Royale, and other streets in Mira Mesa (detailed, in part, in a May 2014 article in Voice of San Diego) and had done nothing to address them other than to slurry seal neighboring streets which, frankly, were not in as severe a state of disrepair. But the slurry-sealing was window dressing, as well as an unnecessary aggravation for many residents. Worst of all, it never addressed the real problem of crumbling streets and problem roads like Gold Coast.
Throughout 2018 I warned that the only reason we didn't have worse potholes in District 6 was because we hadn't had a severe winter that year. Well, we're having a severe winter this year, and the weather is preying upon the region's most vulnerable roads – no more so than Gold Coast Drive.
Last summer, when I attended a forum on the proposal to rebuild Gold Coast, I saw members of the city engineering staff acknowledge the road's poor condition, and noted their amazement that it had been allowed to remain in such poor shape for so long. I also learned how the quick-and-dirty road building effort in the rapid build-up of Mira Mesa in 1970 and 1971 may have been, in part, to blame for the vulnerability of Gold Coast and other neighboring streets to the kind of drainage issues and damage that have been clear to anyone driving on it for well over a decade.
Chris Cate had at least three years to move heaven and earth to serve his constituents and fix these roads by the time I entered the race to challenge him in late 2017. He failed to do so. That failure is evident at this moment along Gold Coast Drive. This is an immediate crisis. The road is a disgrace.
Declare an emergency, sir. Get on a soapbox. Use the power of your office. Do something for your neighbors. Telling constituents you're aware of a problem and giving them the e-mail address of a staffer is hardly a solution. And passing responsibility for immediate action on to other city departments as though you are only a powerless bystander at the mercy of a bureacracy is not acceptable.
District 6 is desperate for a roll-up-your sleeves, get things done leader who makes a difference. My hard-working neighbors deserve it. That's part of the reason I ran for council.
The weather will soon dry, but the problem of crumbling infrastructure and lack of leadership won't go away. Whether by car, bus or bicycle – we have an immediate need to do better by our neighbors. Let's start by acknowledging the crisis. It's the roads, stupid.
Tommy Hough is a San Diego broadcast personality, environmental advocate and non-profit consultant. He lives in Mira Mesa.
Tommy Hough is a former San Diego broadcast personality, wilderness and parks advocate, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He was the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.